Hindu pictures at an Exhibition

I am still trying to find my voice in writing up the theological contents of my India trip; let me try my hand at something more local in the same style that I was writing about India. (too wordy? Makes it readable? Unreadable?) This post is still a tentative work in progress.

There is a wonderful exhibit that opened when I first returned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century.” Museums are one of the key components in the creation of the middle class public sphere. The world’s treasures are no longer available only to royalty, rather since the invention of the museum, everyone can be uplifted by the exhibits as well as learn and debate their meaning. They control the way the public looks at history and are simultaneously an amusement for the family. In this case, for those not privileged to have a grant to travel to India and see the material objects of Eastern religions in their own culture, the exhibit offer a chance to expose people as well as mold their understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Met museum is located on museum mile on Fifth Ave, one of the densest concentrations of cultural institutions in the world, with a single entrance to the museum in the middle of a four block long building. The entrance has a monumental grand stone staircase almost half a block wide and a grand three story entrance. Outside in front of the staircase are a half dozen hotdog/gyro trucks with the most expensive vendor permits in the city at almost a quarter of a million dollars each, for the right to sell hot dogs. Just three blocks away the permits cost half that amount. Think of how many people buy hot dogs and sodas in a year to make this profitable for half a dozen trucks. It also shows what an institution the Metropolitan Museum is for the area.

Upon entering the museum those who visiting every few years wait on long lines for entry and treat this as a special trip in their lives. Those with annual membership enter by showing their card, immediately receiving tickets without waiting. The latter group also tends to avoid the grand front pavilions and go to the elevators in back to reach their destination of a special exhibit.

The Hindu-Buddhist exhibit was on the second floor in the same recessed serpentine exhibit room used for many other special exhibits (for pictures see here and here.) It was kept dark except for the lights on the objects. This separation from everything else marks these objects as art and sculptures removing them from their original religious context. But can we so easily convert statues of gods into art objects? Would a display of tefillin in an exhibition of Greco-Roman leather work remove their religious nature? In many museums in India they have a tough time getting the patrons not to leave flower or incense offerings at the statues, some even want to light votive candles before the statues. Even at the Rubin museum of Himalayan art on 17th Street, there were patrons who did not keep art and devotion separate and left offerings at the statue of Ganesh.

Since exhibits color how people view religions, I have a problem with these exhibits of Indian art from the Gupta and Chola periods (320 to 1000CE). These early centuries produced some of the most spectacular highly ornate art and were a high point of military power for Hindu kingdoms. However, we have very little knowledge of what those statutes meant to those who worshipped. They do not correspond to the sacred texts from either before or after. Nor do they even correspond to classic sutras being written during this time period. Even when the images of Hinduism are from a bas-relief on a Temple, most of these classical Temples are of historical interest and not currently used.

Book publishers love putting these early images on the cover of books leading many if not most people in the West to think that this pantheon of gods is still worshiped and the worship is still in the form of 1500 years ago. Many Westerners will be adamant since these were the illustrations to their paper book books on Hinduism, hence they know what goes on today.

During those years the collective word Hinduism was not even invented. There were separate religions of the worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Durga and others religions with separate festivals, ritual books, and theologies. Placing everything in a single room creates a sense of hodgepodge image of the foreign religion. In addition, there were many pieces of Hindu-Buddhist yakshas- little nature spirits – similar to Gaelic nature spirits before Christianity- giving an image of the religion that is far from contemporary concerns.

Furthermore, most of the pieces in the display were from outside lintels or display pieces in royal buildings. The exhibit did not distinguish between temples and royal buildings since its narrow goal was to show Indian influence in South East Asia. The museum had big decorative lions on display with palace Buddhas, with scenes of the life of the gods, with actual Temple gods. The depiction of the gods on building ornamentation is not the same as actual Temple practice. For example, do Christians worship the gargoyles, griffins, and unicorns used as building ornamentation? Are all the scenes from Ovid or baroque passions found in museums reflective of the theology of the chapel? Do New Yorker’s place altars next to Patience and Fortitude, the lions in front of the New York public library?

Finally, those that were actual Temple deities should have been clothed and fully dressed to preserve the dignity that Hinduism gives its temple statues. Unlike the Greco-Roman statue that celebrated the body, especially the nude form, the Hindu statue is symbolic and non-representational with extra body parts and symbolic ornamentation to tell a story. Temple deities once consecrated are meant to be dressed every day as worship. Luckily, most of the statues had broken pieces and a chipped or broken image loses its status as deities in Hinduism.

Here is a way to put it in Jewish terms. Jews do not make representations of images for worship. But what if they did? What if a curator put together an exhibit of the Biblical image of a golden calf, Helios mosaic synagogue images, relics from the Jewish Temples in Onias and Elephantine, together with images of birds heads from the haggadah and Polish synagogue lions. What would you think? Would you think that Jews worship the synagogue lions?

In addition, if Jews did visual arts for worship, Jews would have to deal with the remains of statues to the shekhinah or the kavod. When Yehudah Halevi tells us to visualize the shekhinah during prayer what would the image had looked like if we made images? What would a devotional image of the body of God from the Song of Glory look like? So would such an exhibit reflect current Jewish thought? [Jews in late antiquity and early middle ages described in their texts zaddikim as having halos of light around their heads, but without the painted images or sculpted figures few know of our similar imagery with the rest of the West.]

There was a decorative statue from Cambodia of Kalkin, the form of Vishnu that will appear at the end of time on a white horse. He will amass an army of those few pious souls remaining and will destroy all demons and sins in the world. This eschatology of a final battle is much closer to our Western messianic and Armageddon battles than our images of Hinduism, yet the visual alone does not convey the meaning.

Notice the row of mediators on this relic cover below. Even some of the most ordinary Buddhist art has depictions of rows of mediators.

Another special exhibit in the museum was by a nineteenth century French sculpture who sought to capture all the realism of the human body as sculpted by Michelangelo. His sculpture had realistic eyes that seem to be real and watching you. In contrast, India sculpture is always ideal or devotional. The eyes were intentionally blank on the statues that were used in worship because they get painted on to consecrate the statue. The Buddhas had eyes half shut to show that one has to look not just outward but also inward. Only the protective/decorative lions and dragons had ordinary eyes since they were not objects of worship.

There is a very similar exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art on the import of Indian image into south East Asia which does not have as extravagant pieces but it is much better curated, limiting itself to devotional pieces.

On leaving the museum on a street proceeding out from the front stairs was the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, an NYU gallery hosting an incredibly important exhibit Copper Age Art from Israel of items from the Copper Age 4000 BCE from what is now the land of Israel. These pieces made between the Neolithic and Bronze age offer an insight in the gods and burial practices of the land 2000 years before the date ascribed to the Patriarchs. When we see this exhibit we know to keep its contents separate from Israelite religion and certainly from Judaism. But if so, then why do people treat Indian archaeology from the Vedic period as if it reflects contemporary Hinduism? And when we see statues of Ugarit or Sumerian style found in what is now Israel, we know it does not reflect the group that became Judaism but we do not make the same distinctions when at exhibit of items from the Indus valley.

Are the book cover designers at fault for causing us to blur historic ages, or maybe various museum exhibits?

5 responses to “Hindu pictures at an Exhibition

  1. Fascinating observations and questions! I am nevertheless unconvinced by your final, critical contrast between the relationship between Judaism and the ISAW artifacts, and the relationship between the Vedas and Hinduism. Let me ask it this way: Don’t you think that people who see the incredible IRON age artifacts at the renewed Israel Museum legitimately wonder about the connections with Judaism? This is mainly because the ancient corpus we know as the Bible was formed then and still remains sacred to Judaism. Couldn’t the same be said (even if to lesser extent) of the Vedas?

  2. Actually the ancient Greeks did dressed their idols, as do the Hindus. See, for instance, http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/early-greek-idols-re-ocr-last-few-pages/

  3. g2-5408f4bf928cf9f653094e7d89403831

    Interesting post. I wasn’t aware that people regard statuary and artifacts from the earliest times in India as representative of current Hindu thought. As you say, the word Hinduism was not yet invented.

    Are you saying this is standard fare among religious Jews or professors of Jewish studies?

    If they do, it’s most likely from the paucity of their knowledge surrounding these issues, just as the similar case would be of someone with little knowledge of Judaism making assumptions about various artifacts from Israel over the millennia.

    I haven’t been keeping up with museum exhibits clearly, so thanks for the various tip offs. I’ll make a point to go.

  4. Shai and Mara- People wonder about what the iron age artifacts says about the Bible and sometimes they then try to suppress the thought. But they do not argue that it is 21st century Judaism.

    I have spoken to various Westerners- students in the hall of the religion department, people on line at the exhibitions in NY, blog commentors, westerners at sites in India and even professors in other fields. They inevitably conflate 200CE to 2014 CE.

    I had a museum with artifacts of the Ganga valley from 200-1600 across from my office, Diana Eck writes in her book that we have no idea what many of them originally meant. I could just listen to the comments of the visitors explaining them in modern terms.

  5. I’ve met people who do it the opposite way — try to impose modern, yogic limitations on the characters in the Bhagvad Gita, for example. Or that the incredible Ayurvedic understanding of anatomy was all done by learning about the body externally and reading energy flows.

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